Indians are voting in the seventh and final phase of national elections, wrapping up a gruelling six-week campaign.
Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is seeking re-election for another five years. The areas voting on Sunday include the prime minister’s constituency of Varanasi, a holy Hindu city where he was elected in 2014 with an impressive margin of more than 200,000 votes.
He spent Saturday night at Kedarnath, a temple of the Hindu god Shiva nestled in the Himalayas in northern India.
The last round of the election includes 59 constituencies in eight states. Up for grabs are 13 seats in Punjab and an equal number in Uttar Pradesh, eight each in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, nine in West Bengal, four in Himachal Pradesh and three in Jharkhand and Chandigarh. Counting of votes is scheduled for 23 May.
In Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, voters lined up outside polling stations in the early morning to avoid scorching heat, with temperatures reaching up to 38C (100.4F). Armed security officials stood guard in and outside the centres because of fears of violence.
While the election since 11 April has been largely peaceful, West Bengal in eastern India is an exception. Modi is challenged here by the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, who leads the more inclusive Trinamool Congress party and is hoping for a chance to go to New Delhi as the opposition’s candidate for prime minister.
Modi visited West Bengal 17 times in an effort to make inroads with his Hindu nationalist agenda, which provoked sporadic violence and prompted the election commission to bring campaigning to an early end.
Prodeep Chakrabarty, a retired school teacher in Kolkata, said Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) was desperate to win some seats against Banerjee’s influential regional party.
“People are divided for many reasons. We have to wait for a final outcome to see who people are voting for. Things are not predictable like before,” he said.
Minorities in India, especially Muslims, who comprise about 14% of India’s 1.3 billion people, criticise Modi’s agenda. His party has backed a bill that would make it easier to deport millions of Bangladeshis who have migrated to India from the Muslim-majority country since its independence in 1971. The bill, however, eases the path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees and Jains – non-Muslims – who have come from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan over decades.
Voters were also up early in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state, where election workers arranged for drinking water, shade and fans to cool them down.
“I straight away came from my morning walk to cast my vote and was surprised to see enthusiasm among the voters,” said Ramesh Kumar Singh, who was among the first ones to vote. “There were long queues of people waiting patiently to cast their votes, which is a good sign for democracy.”
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi’s five-year rule. He also played up the threat of Pakistan, India’s Muslim-majority neighbour and arch-rival, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on 14 February that killed 40 Indian soldiers.
The BJP’s main opposition is the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has produced three prime ministers. Congress and other opposition parties have challenged Modi over a high unemployment rate of 6.1% and the suffering of farmers affected by low crop prices.
Some of Modi’s boldest policy steps, such as the demonetisation of high currency notes to curb black-market money and bring a large number of people into the tax net, proved to be economically damaging. A haphazard implementation of “one nation, one tax” – a goods and services tax – also hit small and medium-sized businesses.
Voter turnout in the first six rounds was approximately 66%, the election commission said, up from 58% in the last national vote in 2014.
Polls taken before the election indicated that no party was likely to win anything close to a majority in parliament, which has 543 seats. The BJP, which won a majority of 282 seats in 2014, may need some regional parties as allies to stay in power. A Congress-led government would require a major electoral upset.